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Nam June Paik sat in his wheelchair at the piano, playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." His Soho studio was a hive, swarming with activity and very hot. Paik, the inventor of video art, a visionary of "new media" even before that term existed, was about to rehearse for the opening night of Transmission, a new piece at Rockefeller Center presented by the Public Art Fund. Paik's piano playing would send commands to a hard drive modulating a laser beam. Each new note or chord he banged out would change the laser image hanging in the air, made visible on a curtain of mist.
While his collaborator, laser expert Norman Ballard, set up at the other end of the room, Paik took a break to explain why he would be playing something so apparently un-Paik-like as "The Battle Hymn." He is, after all, a fabled avant-gardist, once part of the Fluxus movement, which brought a playful disorientation to the whole concept of "concerts." In one notorious 1960 performance, for example, Paik played a little Chopin, then lunged for composer John Cage (seated in the front row), cutting off Cage's tie just below the knot and running out the back door. At the last concert he gave, in 1977, Paik re-created his notorious Opera Sextronique, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the day the police shut it down and arrested his longtime collaborator, Charlotte Moorman, for playing the cello topless.
With Transmission, however, the Korean-born artist did not have artistic outrage in mind. "After 50 years, I have to thank New York," he said. "And after 9-11, I decided to play Americana."
What's now at Rockefeller Center, up behind the skating rink and the Prometheus statue, is two works in one. Transmission will beam lasers from the top of a 33-foot radio tower, reminiscent of the old RKO logo. Needing "an atmospheric medium to retrieve images in midair," as Ballard put it, he and Paik hoped to project lasers onto a water screen. Then came the drought. They decided to go with high-powered hurricane fans from a movie set to create a "mist curtain."
Around Transmission's radio tower sit 16 vintage automobiles, half (all that would fit) of another Paik piece called 32 cars for the 20th century: play Mozart's Requiem quietly. The cars have been gutted, painted silver, and filled with outmoded audiovisual equipment: hi-fis, eight-track tape players, black-and-white TVs. The Requiemplays continuously, the neon patterns change in a Las Vegas heartbeat, and the laser light shows happen once an hour after dark until midnight.
Paik and Ballard have worked on laser pieces together for 20 yearscreating, for example, the spectacular installation in the Guggenheim spiral during Paik's retrospective there in 2000. Ballard describes the Rockefeller Center show as "a kind of a fusion of broadcast and broadband. As Nam June has said, lasers are the ultimate carrier of information. In the first reference to it I saw from himin a Fluxus show in 1967, I thinkPaik mentioned 'laser idea No. 3': The information the laser allows would make for so many channels that everyone would have their own. He saw that long before it happened. Now broadcasting is an artifact. Those radio towers are just like the Model T cars."
In the studio, Ballard had finished setting up his laser scanner, the hazer that would create a mist curtain, and the square floor fan to blow it around. Paik's assistant moved him back to the piano. Since his stroke in 1996, he has not been able to use his left hand. He began a right-handed "Battle Hymn." Green squiggles and arcs ran through the mist cloud filling the center of the studio, the image changing in sync with "Mine eyes have seen the glory." Paik switched suddenly to "Oh! Susannah," then "Swanee River," then other familiar tunes. The rehearsal ended abruptly when Paik announced that he was done. He was leaving.
As Ballard commented, "With a Paik show, there is no real rehearsal."
The artist, who turns 70 this month, actually began his career studying music theory and piano, but gave it up in frustration. "I was looking for sound that doesn't exist," he once said of his music studies. When a professor told him that the sound he wanted lay "between two keys," Paik started retuning pianos. It was a proto-Fluxus gesture, made before he'd heard of that movement, which exulted in searching out the bizarre possibilities of ordinary objects and activities. When Paik bought the first Sony Portapak sold in America, in 1965, he'd already been a video artist for two years. He would open the backs of old black-and-white sets, rewiring the circuits to warp images from the only three networks available in television's Stone Age.
He grasped the language of this medium right away, saw its global-village possibilities. Eventually he set up international collaborations like Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) and Bye Bye Kipling (1986), with artists on two or three continents plugging in live via satellite before such hookups were an everyday event. The inevitable glitches made the whole thing more human. The medium was not quite controllable in those days.
Paik approached the television as if he had never watched one, seeing it as furniture (TV Chair), as otherworldly light (TV Garden), as the tool bringing great artists (Merce Cunningham, say) into every home. For the moment, he seems less focused on video. As he put it, "Long time do the same thing."